Tata Steel Chess will start with a bang on Saturday as World Champion Magnus Carlsen has been drawn to face 17-year-old Alireza Firouzja, widely considered to be among Carlsen's future challengers to the throne. The 83rd edition of the super tournament also sees home favourite Anish Giri face Norwegian Aryan Tari, the lowest rated player in the field, while World no. 2 and reigning Tata Steel Chess Champion Fabiano Caruana was drawn against the other Dutch hope, Jorden van Foreest.
The COVID-19 pandemic could not stop the most traditional super tournament in the chess world from being organized. Once again the chess year will begin in Wijk aan Zee as the 83rd edition of Tata Steel Chess takes off today.
Speaking to “Let's talk about chess”, a podcast run by Eric van Reem, Tournament Director Jeroen van den Berg spoke about the difficult process of preparing the tournament despite the Netherlands currently being in a lockdown which was recently extended to February 9th.
Thankfully, chess is considered a top sport in the Netherlands, which means the players are top athletes and exempt from regular quarantine rules.
“We always said we will go on. This was clear. But we had no idea how”, said Van den Berg. In October they eventually decided to skip the Challenger and Amateur events as the second wave hit the country and most of Europe, seeing it was far too dangerous. The tournament hall that used to be packed with more than 500 people, is now down to around 30-40.
It took some serious time before we got the permission from all the authorities that was needed. And somewhere in early December we received the green light. That was quite hectic.
Asked whether they have an emergency plan in case one player becomes sick, van den Berg says:
We have everything covered. Players and staff will be tested four times during the tournament, before the free days.
Chess fans could hardly get a better pairing in round 1, with Magnus Carlsen facing the 17-year-old Iranian prodigy Alireza Firouzja!
Anish Giri's pairing against Aryan Tari is the only one without any history in classical chess, while Pentala Harikrishna and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave know each other well, with eight previous games between them.
You can hover the mouse over the players' name to see their full pairings.
Magnus Carlsen made his debut in the top group in Wijk aan Zee in 2007 with a disappointing 4.5/13, finishing in last place. In 2008, however, the then 17-year-old shared 1st along with Levon Aronian and won his first major event. Since then Carlsen has won another six times in 2010, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019 - a record in the history of the tournament.
Carlsen told TV 2 that after playing only one classical event since his second place behind Fabiano Caruana in 2020, this year's event will be “extremely important” in the preparations for his 2021 World Championship match:
I have experienced before that the tournament has kickstarted a few years for me. In addition it has helped me to get out of a couple of bad periods. So I believe this can become a turning point after a bad period.
Another player with great memories from Wijk aan Zee is our commentator Peter Leko, who will be doing commentary on chess24 along with Jan Gustafsson and Tania Sachdev.
The former World Championship challenger does have quite a history in Wijk aan Zee himself, participating 15 times, and for the last two years he was present as both a second of German prodigy Vincent Keymer and as a commentator on the official broadcast.
Leko is excited about following an over-the-board event again. He tells chess24:
I would say January without in some way being involved with the Tata Steel Chess Tournament is unimaginable for me! A big thank you for the whole organising team for making this unique traditional event happen despite all the difficulties.
The enthusiastic Hungarian has received great feedback from fans for his commentary on the Champions Chess Tour, and he is thrilled to be back in the role.
I am very excited to be teaming up with Jan and Tania to cover the Tata Steel Masters tournament on chess24. Jan and I have been working together on a lot of the Grenke Classic tournaments and having Jan as a partner is always so much fun! Lately we have been very active with Tania covering the Champions Chess Tour, with all the incredibly emotional fast-paced action and drama. Commentating on such a prestigious classical event will give us the possibility to show a different angle now, as one thing is for sure, no matter what time control, chess is a fantastic game that has to be enjoyed!
Leko played in the 2008 event that Carlsen won, and was one of two players who managed to beat him. He remembers the game well.
Actually I do remember the 2008 event very well. From my side I did everything I could to stop Magnus winning the event as I beat him in a dramatic time scramble. The fact that he nevertheless managed to win the tournament was all the more impressive. In order to do so he needed to survive a very scary moment against Van Wely the very next day and later beat none other than Kramnik with the black pieces! Magnus showed "true Champion's Character" at only 17, which was amazing!
While Carlsen disappointed in his first Masters, Firouzja scored a fine performance at the same age last year, finishing 8th with 6.5 points despite losing three rounds in a row to Carlsen, Caruana and Anand.
At Firouzja's age (17 years and 6 months), Carlsen was already ranked 6th in the world, climbing to 2775. In any case, it does seem like the 17-year-old is making steady progress, currently ranked 18th in the world at 2749. Firouzja proved himself yet again by his excellent 2nd place in Norway Chess last October, behind Carlsen.
Leko does not want to compare the two at the same age.
Firouzja had an incredible run last year, but towards the end of the event also experienced how tough it is to play 13 rounds at the very highest level. Alireza got a lot of opportunities last year to play against the very best players in the world, from which he definitely has learned a lot. It is difficult to make an exact comparison and I think everybody has to go his own way. One thing is for sure, with the talent and dedication Alireza puts into his chess he has all the chances to fight for the world title in the future! But, for the moment, let us enjoy his play at Tata Steel first.
Leko isn't the only one with great memories of the chilly Dutch town.
Carlsen told TV 2 he thinks it's going to be a real “rat-race” and that several of the top players are capable of scoring a lot of points. Leko thinks only four players are capable of winning:
I believe the main favourite is obviously Magnus as he traditionally is very strong in Wijk aan Zee and is hoping to grab his 8th title! On the other hand, we have seen Fabiano scoring really huge last year and convincingly winning the event despite Magnus being in good shape. In the years 2018/19 Anish showed fantastic performances, fighting for the title both times and narrowly missing out as Magnus kept his nerve all way along to win the trophies! In order to win, Magnus has to be in a great shape again. I am pretty sure that after the last few unlucky online events Magnus is very motivated to prove himself. Since the tournament is so long in my opinion it is very difficult for "outsiders" to win the event, but getting to the podium of such a prestigious tournament is already a great achievement for anyone apart from Magnus. I am also especially interested in Maxime Vachier-Lagrave - as one of the co-leaders of the Candidates he clearly wants to get a self-confidence boost before the 2nd leg of the Candidates resumes.
Asked about how the lack of over-the-board practice will affect the tournament, Leko says:
I am very interested myself how the players will handle the situation. What we have seen so far in all of the few events that have happened OTB is that the players are really hungry and excited when given the chance to fight over the board. This is exactly what chess fans all around the world are waiting for! Can't wait for the action to start!
You can follow all the action on chess24 today at 14.00 CET (last round at 13.00 CET), where we will have live broadcast in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and Polish.
And don't miss the chance to Go Premium with the code TATA2021, which gives you 40% off!
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